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Article posted: 3/20/2013 4:24 PM

Tollway expansion has fringe benefits for Elgin fen

By Marni Pyke

The rare swamp thistle, marsh marigold and skunk cabbage will get a piece of the action as the Illinois tollway moves forward on plans to widen the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90).

Tollway directors at a committee meeting Wednesday approved an intergovernmental agreement with Elgin and the Kane County Forest Preserve District that will help restore a unique wetlands and woods, known as a forested fen, north of I-90 at Route 25.

The 23-acre property, where the vacant Fox River Country Day School sits now, was once part of a large natural area along the Fox River characterized by bluffs, wetlands and woodlands. The site is contiguous to Trout Park Natural Area and contains unusual species such as marsh marigolds, white cedar trees, skunk cabbage and caddisflies, a moth-like insect.

The agreement still requires a vote by the full board. Under its terms, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority will contribute $2.6 million to Elgin and the forest preserve to help acquire the land and return it to a more natural state.

The agreement allows the tollway to fulfill its obligations to compensate for the environmental impact of widening I-90 between Elgin and I-39 in Rockford.

Acquisition of the property isn't a done deal yet as Elgin is still working to come up with funding in cooperation with the nonprofit Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation.

Less than 400 acres of high-quality fen survive in Illinois, said Steven Bryers of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Fens are unlike bogs or marshes in that they rely on an uninterrupted flow of mineralized groundwater.

"The reason the site at the Fox River Country Day School and nearby Trout Park Nature Preserve are forested is that both sites are tucked away on north-facing slopes that overlook the Fox River," he explained. "The Fox River provided -- over thousands of years -- a natural firebreak that prevented fires from sweeping up the hills. So, as the glaciers retreated, these cold-loving trees hung on -- again because of the north-facing slope, the cool groundwater and a history of protection from fires."

"It's one of the rarest natural communities that exists (in Illinois)," forest preserve district Executive Director Monica Meyers said. Once the land reverts back to nature, it has the potential to restore itself and "with our help minimize the invasive species and allow the native species to flourish."

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